working in a bright office

The Architecture and Design of the Ideal Workplace

In a typical office, employees have a safe, comfortable environment in which to work – one that may be considered fine or adequate, but which doesn’t necessarily inspire. A lot of people say, “Where I work isn’t all that bad,” said architect Charles First, AIA, CCM, CFM. In his recently published book, “A Place to be Happy: Linking Architecture & Positive Psychology,” First proposes that the ideal workplace be designed to address the needs and values of the company, but also for the empowerment and well-being of the individual employees.

First has design and construction experience in many sectors ranging from education to public institutions, but primarily in office design for new and renovated buildings, for both regional and corporate offices. Positive psychology, he believes, presents opportunities for a shift in how office design and architecture are approached – an approach borne out by the results of numerous evidenced-based studies showing what factors enhance employee well-being.

By emphasizing key elements from the beginning of the development process, a workplace can contribute to employees’ identifying with a sense of purpose, having fun and, above all, feeling respected, First said. This is not to say that the design would sacrifice other considerations like safety and efficiency, but rather that these elements of positive psychology would be considered in context with everything else.

“In historic terms, building programs have equated value as putting in mahogany wood, high-quality fixtures, using granite in coffee areas – it’s been equated to materials,” First said. “After a while, people who come to work every day may not notice these touches.”

Positive psychology shifts the focus from the materials to the people. “Materials are still the vocabulary of designers, but how they use it would be different” said First.

There are four primary settings where these factors of positive psychology come into play: 1. The relationships of the individual employee with their peers, 2. with their team/department, 3. with their immediate supervisor, and 4. with the enterprise as a whole.

While sustainability has become a consideration in building design in recent years, it focuses more narrowly on natural resources and the preservation of the environment rather than the needs of the individuals inside the building. The WELL™ Building movement, meanwhile, emphasizes the physical (and somewhat mental) well-being of the employees, like exposure to sunlight, clean and filtered air, and movement. Positive psychology takes design even further, addressing deeper needs and values.

The most critical element: respect, which First defines as the individual feeling valued. “Many of the surveys that have been done show that money, above a certain point, is not as important as being respected,” First said.

The setup of an office might establish a class hierarchy of sorts where some employees are shown to be more valuable than others by virtue of their workspaces, such as having private offices with access to natural light, while others are in nondescript cubicles with fluorescent lighting. While emphasizing that designers should use their creativity to come up with individualized solutions for each company and its employees, First suggested some possible considerations to keep in mind.

An office focused on respect, said First, would highlight the individual and address questions like, who are the people who work there, and why is what they do important and valued? To convey the answers through design, a company might choose to display photos of its employees that highlight their contributions and abilities. The message: “Here are the talented and valued people who are going to take care of your problems.”

In many offices, the lobby looks elegant but provides no sense of what specifically the company does – an ideal office lobby would convey a strong sense of pride in the mission of the organization through design choices.

Other buildings feature green spaces on the rooftop or in the lobby, but lack anything in the actual workspaces of the employees where the day-to-day work gets done. A more invigorating approach might be to attach topsiders – plants that affix to the side of a cubicle – to introduce nature and beauty into each individual’s workspace.

Adopting these features of positive psychology won’t guarantee the success of the company – the company can still make poor decisions or investments – but it can help optimize what the company is doing and the effectiveness, and well-being, of the workers who are there.

“Many designers and developers are looking for a silver bullet but more enlightened CEOs know it’s a process,” First said.

This is part two of a two-part series exploring the impact of positive psychology on office architecture and design. The first part examines the value of incorporating elements of positive psychology into office design.

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